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Editor’s Plate: Consider a Single Food Safety Agency

May 11, 2022
Politico's recent expose on the FDA uncovered many things. Now some are wondering if the investigation will become a catalyst for reform.

When I joined my first food industry magazine 30 years ago, I recall being a little confused that there were two different agencies responsible for food safety in the U.S. – FDA and USDA. It didn't make sense to this novice back then. But over the course of three decades, it's become accepted, the norm ... which doesn't necessarily make it right.

If you were starting from scratch, would you separate food safety into two agencies? It just doesn't make sense.

That foundational question should precede what follows, something of a debate in April about whether the FDA is doing a good enough, efficient enough job protecting the nation's food supply. The discussion started with a Politico investigation of the agency. My interpretation of its conclusions are:

  • Can one agency effectively oversee foods and drugs ... and tobacco, for that matter?
  • Does the split of food safety/regulatory issues and nutrition issues create division, even competition, within FDA?
  • Does the pursuit of thoroughness and sound science sacrifice urgency, and maybe lives?
  • Is FDA's authority and stature within the government diluted by not being a cabinet-level agency, but instead a part of the Dept. of Health and Human Services?

Some might dismiss the Politico report as a sensationalist way to "sell papers" (I guess now we must say "internet subscriptions") but 28 trade associations and other groups took it seriously enough to write a group letter asking FDA Commissioner Robert Califf to revamp the agency and to consider a single deputy commissioner overseeing all things relating to food.

Why stop there? Why not a single food safety agency, combining the food safety/inspection (non-agricultural) tasks of USDA with those of FDA? Canada has a single department, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and it seems to be working quite efficiently.

For years there has been talk of, even calls for, a single food safety agency. Back in 2018, then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced a “formal agreement” aimed at making the oversight of food more efficient and effective by bolstering coordination between the two agencies. Their immediate concerns were produce safety and biotechnology activities, natural topics for coordination. But I haven't heard anything since.

David Acheson, who worked for both agencies and ultimately was the FDA's associate commissioner for foods, told us back in 2018, "I have always been an advocate of a single food safety agency – but also very realistic in recognizing that it will probably never happen." (He's also a frequent contributor to our magazine.)

Maybe this Politico expose will be the trigger for a renewed consideration of this very logical idea.

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